Monday, June 03, 2013

Your Church is Too Small- Part 1

Here is a fair look (and critique of) at Hillsong. The author, Sam Freney, had gone to a conference in Australia recently, as well as attended the church several times.

It is kind of long, so I broke it up into 2 parts. The other part will post in a couple days. (Any footnotes will be on the second post. Though you can read the whole thing using the link above.

Your church is too small

Deep darkness is punctuated by the flash of a thousand cameras; rumbling bass rattles through my bones. Throughout the arena I can hear the burbling, surging, building crescendo of music ready to erupt—and then, with a synthesizer burst, lights erupt throughout the stadium, only to be extinguished just as quickly.1
They flash again, synchronized to the beat. Hundreds of brightly lit white stone cubes are carried down walkways, passed from hand to hand, winding their way to the central stage.
A man’s voice rings out, and words appear on the screens:
You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. (1 Pet 2:5a, NIV11)

In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Eph 2:21-22, NIV11)
The stones are gradually carried to the centre and piled together, building upwards and outwards, as from the ceiling a huge cross—made from the same chunks of brightly-lit stone—descends to rest on the newly-constructed foundation in the middle of the stage. The cross of Jesus, amidst his people, built together to be a dwelling place of God.
We stand together, and the atmosphere continues to build through the first few songs towards the signature song of the week:
My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,
No merit of my own I claim,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name.
. . .
Christ alone, cornerstone,
Weak made strong in the saviour’s love
Through the storm, he is Lord, Lord of all.
Along with 20,000 others, this was my introduction to the 2012 Hillsong Conference.

The movement of the movement

I decided to go along to the week-long convention to get a feel for where Hillsong was up to. I went expecting a fairly different experience to my normal church life—and sure enough, it was an astonishing few days. There’s just something about a Christian conference with that many people that makes it an experience like no other—from the infectious enthusiasm of a stadium full of people joyfully singing about Jesus’ death for them and their life in him, to the high fives from volunteers as you leave for the evening, to the stumbling but sincere efforts of one guy behind me to evangelize the Hindu man on the train home.
But I can already hear some of you saying “Wait… what? Another article on Hillsong in The Briefing? Why is this necessary? Didn’t Tony and Gordon write a pretty scathing piece about the Hillsong conference a few years ago?”
“I’ve been wondering if Hillsong is a movement that evangelicals can work with in the gospel.”
Well, yes. But it has seemed to me for some time that Hillsong as a movement—for that is really what it is, with the church itself, the music ministry, and the conferences expanding not only here in Sydney but around the world—has enjoyed more and more legitimacy in the evangelical circles I’m in. This seems to be true more so now than even five or six years ago. Our churches sing the songs, teenagers head over to the bigger Hillsong campuses in Sydney for band nights, members of our congregations go (often en masse) to the conferences, and there’s even joint training programs and events for music and worship that are co-sponsored by Hillsong and mainstream evangelical churches. So I’ve been wondering if Hillsong is actually a movement that evangelicals can, broadly speaking, work together with and alongside in the gospel, enjoying the “passion for the local church” they champion at their conference. Or is it, as Tony and Gordon feared it might be several years ago, a mainstream Christian movement adrift from its Christian moorings, and increasingly less recognizable as faithful, biblical Christianity?

No blank slates here

We need to acknowledge at the outset that no-one approaches a topic like this—or, indeed, a conference like this—in a vacuum. I’m no exception. Whether you’ve been a Christian for eighty years or you’re an avowed atheist, we all have a set of preconceived ideas about church, doctrine, music, and the rest, based on anything from ignorance to decades of experience to intense study of the Scriptures. In fact, this might be an excellent time for you to stop reading what I have to say for a moment, and evaluate your own preconceptions of not only this church, but of this article itself. Given I’m the editor of The Briefing, what have you already assumed I will say? What do you expect from this article? Is there anything I could tell you about the conference and the church that would push you from what you already believe?
As I went to the conference, several things were on my mind. One was that it is slightly unfair to judge a church on the basis of a conference: after all, it is by definition an exceptional event, not regular church life. (It’s only slightly unfair because in this case everything is produced by the one church; that’s in contrast to, say, someone assessing a particular Sydney Anglican church on the basis of a Katoomba Convention.) To offset this, I’ve been out to the main Hills campus on many occasions both before the conference and since, to get a broader view of things.2
In addition to this wariness, particularly relevant in my case was my own personal Christian background. You see, I grew up going with my parents to a small Pentecostal church in Christchurch, New Zealand, and then to a very large Pentecostal church in Sydney, Australia: Christian City Church, now C3 at Oxford Falls. My parents knew the leadership team quite well; my dad was a deacon; we were in with the movers and shakers. Yet my parents walked away from the church and from the faith for a variety of reasons, not least of which was the way that prosperity teaching had overtaken parts of the church. Needless to say, I reserve a certain fiery part of my heart for those who teach that financial and physical blessing are a result of faith in Christ—and, more to the point, for those who draw the connection between suffering or need and lack of faith. For that reason, I approached this conference wary of a few things, particularly given that two of the main platform speakers were Joyce Meyer and Joseph Prince. Meyer is known for her folksy form of wisdom teaching about claiming the benefits of the Christian life, and Prince’s catch-phrase is that in Christ “we reign in life” (over demons, sin, poverty, sickness, and so on).
The other relevant part of my experience with Charismatic churches that shaped my expectations going in to this conference was my memory of how passionate these Christians are. By and large they’re obviously joyful about Jesus, his power to transform them, and his word: many of those I knew from C3 had the Bible flowing off them constantly. They knew the Scriptures well, and used the language and phrases of the Bible in everyday conversation—an enormously edifying practice.
Both of my pre-existing suspicions were partly confirmed, and partly not—but more of that below.

An expansive vision

Hillsong is big, and believes that much more is in store.
At several points throughout the week, we were reminded of the growing network of Hillsong churches around the world, and the successful (read: large and growing) church plants from Melbourne to Kiev. We heard interviews with those doing social work with street kids in Mumbai, educating and feeding children from the slums. The Cornerstone album was launched at the start of the week, and we were informed before the end of the conference that it was on the top-five list on iTunes both in Australia and the US. Everyone on the platform came from a big church, or a big movement, or had a big vision.
But it’s not just about the wide reach the church has now, it’s about the impact of the church going forward: Hillsong Conference this year (2013) is all aboutRevival. Drawing on a “prophetic word” about Australia, the conference brochure starts like this:
“Australia you have been chosen by God for a great move of the Holy Spirit. This move of God will be the greatest move of God ever known in mankind’s history and will start towards the end of the 20th century and move into the 21st century. This move of God will start a great revival in Australia, and spread throughout the whole world…” (Smith Wigglesworth at the beginning of the 20th century)
Brian Houston, senior pastor, said of this, “I’m claiming that in Jesus’ name”, and stated regarding the following year’s conference that they were “believing for many conversions”. Joyce Meyer quite explicitly connected this prophesied movement with the current and ongoing success of Hillsong.3
Several years ago Tony and Gordon noticed that some of the hard edges of Pentecostalism were being downplayed: speaking in tongues, prophecy, direct revelation from God, ecstatic experiences. It seems now that some of those Pentecostal/Charismatic distinctives are claimed, but cast in a broader network of “evangelicalism” (even if you need to stretch that term almost to breaking point to accommodate the range it covers). So big evangelical names are used in the ‘Revival: 2013’ promotional material—Billy Graham and Martyn Lloyd Jones, for example—and teachers such as Rick Warren are keynote speakers alongside Pentecostal preachers Judah Smith, TD Jakes, and Joel Osteen.4 The absence of name-it-and-claim-it teaching from several of the keynote speakers in 2012 was notable, especially in comparison to some of their recorded and printed works.5
So it does seem that some of the distinctively Pentecostal or Charismatic practices of Hillsong have been softened. Sure, there were places for them: the very first prayer at the conference was for healing; there was space for speaking in tongues during the ‘Surrender’ song on Tuesday night. But by and large the Hillsong message appears to be positioned more and more as mainstream evangelicalism. Having said that, however, the mainstream evangelicalism they are part of has many of its sharper edges being rubbed off too, smoothed to a more acceptable message (in the eyes of popular culture, perhaps) about the blessing God has in store for you.
Explicit prosperity teaching was absent from the conference, but then again so was any indication of: our need for salvation from our sins; the judgement of God that will come on those who are not in Christ; the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf; the idea of taking up our own cross and following our Lord, or indeed of his lordship over each aspect of our lives. In its place was a much vaguer idea of blessing—not simply in financial terms, although that is part of it—which God desires to bring on those who believe in Jesus’ name.
“Many of the talks were a reversal of the sermon illustrations that many of us are used to.”
The speakers did not say anything that I would call specifically wrong with regards to the Scriptures (although there were some notable exceptions); they simply talked about other things in place of the emphases of the Bible. The talk on forgiveness, for example, was about letting go of past personal hurts in order to be able to move on in life. So the latter part of Jesus’ phrase in the Lord’s prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”, was the subject of an entire talk to the complete exclusion of the former phrase. In fact, other than one throwaway line, there was no appreciation for or recognition of the need for forgiveness from God. To give you an idea of the tone of many of the talks, it was a little like a reversal of the sermon illustrations that many of us are used to: instead of a personal story helping to clarify a biblical idea, the biblical text was an illustration for a broader personal narrative. The preaching on the main platform was almost entirely about us, and the widely-varying blessing God desires to bestow on us, including health, wealth, and success.
You’ll be getting the impression by now that I didn’t appreciate the teaching at this conference. (That is correct.) In fact, my brief summary to those who asked me what the conference was like was this: “The preaching was simply terrible; everything else I went to was excellent.”
...To be Continued...

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